Chinese fret over elderly as WHO warns of holiday COVID surge

  • Two billion trips are expected to be made in the Lunar New Year
  • The spread of the virus from cities to vulnerable villages
  • The WHO says China’s response is challenged by a lack of data
  • China’s grand opening was marred by Japan and Korea

BEIJING, Jan 12 (Reuters) – Chinese people worried on Thursday about spreading Covid-19 to elderly relatives as they planned to return to their cities for a holiday that the World Health Organization warned could spark a severe outbreak.

The Lunar New Year holiday, which officially begins on January 21, comes after China last month lifted its strict anti-virus regime from widespread lockdowns that sparked widespread frustration and turned into historic protests.

The sudden turnaround unleashed Covid on a population of 1.4 billion people who lack natural immunity and have been protected against the virus since the virus erupted in late 2019, including many elderly people who are not fully vaccinated.

The spread of the disease from China’s megacities to rural areas with weaker medical resources has affected some hospitals and crematoria.

With scant official data from China, the WHO said on Wednesday that managing the virus during a holiday period that sees the world’s largest annual migration of people is challenging.

Other warnings from Chinese health experts for people to stay away from elderly relatives during the holiday became the most-read item on China’s Weibo-like Twitter on Thursday.

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One user wrote: “This is a very good suggestion, go back to your hometown… or prioritize the health of the elderly. Another user said that they did not dare to visit their grandmother and left gifts for her at the doorstep.

The user wrote: “It’s almost New Years and I’m afraid he’s lonely.

More than two billion trips are expected across China during the broader Lunar New Year period, which begins on Jan. 7 and lasts for 40 days, according to the Ministry of Transport. That’s double the number of trips last year and 70 percent of the trips seen in 2019 before the outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

“I will stay at home and avoid going to very crowded places,” said Chen, a 27-year-old documentary maker in Beijing who plans to visit his hometown in the eastern province of Zhejiang.

Chen said she disinfects her hands before meeting elderly relatives, like her grandmother, who managed to avoid infection.

The lack of data was criticized

The World Health Organization and foreign governments have criticized China for not being forthcoming about the scale and severity of the outbreak, prompting several countries to impose restrictions on Chinese travelers.

China has reported five or fewer deaths a day for the past month, numbers that do not match the long lines seen at funeral homes. The country did not report data on Covid-19 deaths on Tuesday and Wednesday.

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Liang Wanyan, head of the National Health Organization’s Covid expert panel, told reporters that deaths can only be accurately counted after the epidemic is over.

Although international health experts predict at least one million deaths from Covid this year, China has reported just over 5,000 since the outbreak began, a fraction of what other countries reported when restrictions were lifted.

Looking beyond the death toll, investors are betting that China’s reopening will give a boost to the $17 trillion economy, which is experiencing its slowest growth in nearly half a century.

That has sent Asian stocks to seven-month highs, the Chinese yuan strengthened against the U.S. dollar and global oil prices on hopes of renewed demand from the world’s biggest importer.

China’s growth is likely to return to 4.9 percent in 2023, according to a Reuters poll of economists released on Thursday. GDP is likely to grow by just 2.8 percent in 2022 as lockdowns hit activity and confidence, a sharp departure from 8.4 percent growth in 2021, according to the survey.

Travel challenges

After three years of isolation from the outside world, China on Sunday lifted quarantine rules for inbound visitors, in a move that is expected to finally stimulate foreign travel as well.

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But concerns about the spread of the disease in China have led more than a dozen countries to request negative Covid test results from people coming from China.

Among them, South Korea and Japan also have limited flights and require testing upon arrival, and passengers who test positive are sent to quarantine.

Aggravating the dispute between the regional rivals, China has in turn stopped issuing short-term visas and suspended transit visa exemptions for South Korean and Japanese nationals.

Despite Beijing’s lifting of travel restrictions, outbound bookings from China were only 15 percent of pre-pandemic levels in the week after the country announced it was reopening its borders, travel information firm ForwardKeys said on Thursday.

“Low airline capacity, high airfares, new pre-flight COVID-19 testing requirements by many countries, and a flood of passport and visa applications are creating challenges that the industry is looking to improve,” Olivier Ponti, vice president of ForwardKeys Insights, said in a statement.

Hong Kong Airlines said on Thursday it does not expect to return to capacity until mid-2024.

Reporting by Bernard Orr, Liz Lee, Eduardo Baptista and Jing Wang in Beijing. By John Geddy; Edited by Lincoln Fest and Nick McPhee

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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